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Officers welcome new texting-while-driving ban but see challenges enforcing it

Florida lawmakers passed a bill making texting while driving a primary offense, and agencies in the Tampa Bay area are gearing up for enforcement. [Associated Press]
Published May 13

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Ask cops about the distracted driving they see on the road and they'll tell you some wild stories.

Traffic Cpl. Kristy Udagawa with the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office has seen people perusing the newspaper and eating at the wheel. Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter has watched drivers steer with their knees while they read a book or put on makeup.

"I always felt that was either ridiculously crazy or an example of a wonderful ability to multi-task," Slaughter said.

A common thread in their stories of distracted motorists is the increase in texting while driving — a problem so sweeping it's rare to drive without seeing someone doing it. In Florida, texting while driving is a secondary offense, meaning an officer would have to see a driver break another law — say, speeding — before issuing a citation for it.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Seven things to know about the texting while driving ban headed to Ron DeSantis' desk

But this year, state lawmakers passed a bill making texting while driving a primary offense and agencies in the Tampa Bay area are gearing up to enforce it. While many agencies see this as an important first step, some worry the measure contains more excuses than teeth.

"We kind of came to a consensus that the bill is useless," said Plant City police patrol Sgt. Alfred Van Duyne. "For law enforcement, it's really not a victory. ... It didn't make our job any easier."

The bill, if signed as expected by Gov. Ron DeSantis, would go into effect July 1, except for a section that prohibits holding your phone while driving in certain areas. Thist portion takes effect Jan. 1, after a grace period of warnings-only that starts Oct. 1.

Eighteen states, including Georgia, have enacted hands-free laws, meaning people there can't hold a phone at all while driving, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Florida's bill goes this far, too, but only in school and work zones and in school crossing zones and even here with a few exceptions. Otherwise, holding a phone is okay if it's for designated safety reasons — like navigation, checking weather or traffic alerts, and calling law enforcement to report criminal or suspicious activity.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Florida's texting while driving bill heading to Ron DeSantis for approval

Udagawa said she was glad to see the hands-free requirement for areas where pedestrians and bicyclists are more vulnerable. Hillsborough deputies already saturate those zones and the new law will give them another way to pull over dangerous drivers, at least.

"If a phone is in a driver's hands, it's automatic probable cause for a traffic stop all day long," she said. "It's an easy catch."

Issuing a citation won't be so easy, though. It can be difficult to deduce exactly how a driver in the next car is using a phone, especially through tinted windows. And deputies have to keep their eyes on the road while they're driving, too.

Even after an officer has seen enough to pull drivers over, they could argue they were using Google Maps or dialing a phone number. Udagawa would rather see a total ban on hand-held phone use, but added, "I think this is a good first step."

Drivers shouldn't count on using these excuses, though, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

There are signs that a driver is more engaged in the phone than just inputting an address or checking directions. Drifting and swerving are classic signs of the extended inattention that characterizes texting and driving.

Udagawa said the pattern resembles the behavior of a drunken driver.

At this point, the evidence would be circumstantial, Gualtieri said, and the deputy — later, the judge — would make a call on whether it's enough for a citation to stick.

"People shouldn't think for a second they'll get an automatic pass," the sheriff said.

What's more, the new law provides greater authorization to pull someone over — even if it doesn't result in a ticket — and that is seen as helping keep the streets safe. It gives officers a chance to educate drivers and might make drivers think twice about picking up their phones.

"There's a knot-in-your-gut factor when you see those lights behind you and get pulled over," Gualtieri said.

This value is echoed by Van Duyne, who oversees Plant City's traffic unit of four officers on motorcycles.

But along with the exceptions that concern him in the new law, he points to another complication — cops must tell drivers they can decline a search of their phone.

"I already shared with my guys, "'Obviously, be on the lookout for the perfect storm of events to align that will give you the opportunity to cite somebody," Van Duyne said. '''But in all actuality, it's going to be very, very few and far between.'"

Another provision of the law, added to discourage racial profiling, requires officers to record the race and ethnicity of an offender and, beginning Feb. 1, to report that data to the state. Many agencies already record the information so it won't make much of a difference to them.

Clearwater Chief Slaughter calls this provision "a responsible approach." Traffic enforcement can be a way to uncover bigger crimes, Slaughter said, such as drug possession and trafficking. But using traffic enforcement this way can lead to disproportionate application in higher crime areas.

"It warrants keeping an eye on," he said, "and making sure our officers understand the optics and perception of enforcing something like this."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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